Fr Sylvester Ponje is a Mill Hill Father from Cameroon, currently serving in South Africa. He is a former neighbour of Glasgow-based Mill Hill Missionary, Fr John Doran, who describes him as 'an outstanding missionary. In 2012, he spent a month serving the Church in Scotland in St Francis of Assisi parish in Port Glasgow in Paisley Diocese. Here, he describes the current situation faced by many of his parishioners in the towns in which he serves, in the midst of the pandemic.
Fr Sylvester Ponje MHM
THE Covid-19 pandemic, which is currently plaguing the world, has brought with it tremendous adverse repercussions that are even worse among the most vulnerable people. The impact of it is crippling the world's economy and leaving many people unemployed. There has been an increase in cases of hunger and starvation among the less privileged too.
Those most affected worldwide are the children of deprived families. Here, in South Africa—particularly in small towns such as Oranjeville and Deneysville where I serve— there are families who live on £1 a day. They can hardly afford to provide the balanced diets required for healthy living. As well as children in families, this also affects street children, homeless adults, HIV/AIDS infected people and children living with single parents or grandparents.
Given the amount of food wastage in affluent cities throughout the world, I am of the view that we should support any scheme that provides nutritious food via drop-in centres for less privileged children hit hard by Covid-19 or families facing hardship, which are easily identifiable in these communities.
The number of victims in South Africa is increasing daily and I have personally lost count of those directly affected by the coronavirus. Medical assistance from Cuba has been sought to help deal with the situation and, so far, more than 200 doctors and medical practitioners from there have come into the country. It's a tough time for us as a Church here in this part of the world at the minute, but the Covid-19 pandemic invites us all to solidarity and share in what I describe as 'the joy of giving.'
Our faith reminds us that the vocation of living our lives for others is paramount. Our Christian ethos and morality teach us that we are not individuals living in isolation, but rather as a community of believers. We were all born to help one another. Being our brother's or sister's keeper—as noted in the book of Genesis 4:8-10—should be our goal. In times of a pandemic such as this, the joy of living and being alive needs to be extended to others, especially those less fortunate.
Supporting the vulnerable during the Covid-19 crisis is something that we all must endeavour to do. May NGOs—including the government—have taken the initiative to open solidarity funds to assist those in need. However, this is not enough and not all are being reached by the relief programmes. The cry for food and the longing for sustainability from the poverty-stricken is something that should be heard by us all. We need to respond like God did to the plight of the Israelites in bondage, where He affirmed that 'the cry of my people has reached my ears.' (Exodus 3:7-9)
Declaring a lockdown brings with it many challenges, but these challenges are even more acute for the poor. Food support is a vital emergency measure that vulnerable people rely on at this time. We can help the poor by assisting them in observing the lockdown regulations, so that they do not put their lives at risk. Given the contagious nature of the virus, if the poor are not in good health, we won't be either. Their plight is ours as well.
Faith and funds
On that note, the support received from the Pontifical Mission Societies and some of our parishioners at the height of lockdown, was vital and timely for the communities of Deneysville and Oranjeville, which I am happily serving. The sums received have enabled us to buy food, clothes, sanitisers and other valuable materials that helped to reduce the plight of the weak. Indeed, the joy on their faces and in their hearts was evident.
What South Africa has experienced—and continues to experience in the current pandemic with its increasing number of victims on a daily basis—is the harshest situation I have ever come across. The lockdown, which has been deemed necessary has seen us moving from Stage 5 to Stage 2 and now we are in Stage 3 with all its associated consequences. The country was closed from March 2020 until September 2020, when it was reopened, but before we could begin to rejoice, the country was closed once again. Churches have been hit hard, especially the Catholic Church, which only forms between 6-8 per cent of the population. The priests and missionaries have been forced to look at ways of sustaining themselves as well as keeping their small communities of the faithful alive and motivated in their faith. We always have to consider how every single penny is spent, but even more so at this time.
However, in the midst of all this, there is the certainty that God is here with us and that He never forgets His people. Even though there are many people dying—with no proper and befitting funerals being available for those who have died from Covid-19—there is still hope. The long-awaited vaccine is just around the corner. Outdoor activities and social gatherings are prohibited and this is not easy for South Africans who are a notoriously sociable and outdoor people. In spite of this though and all the pain and desolation, 'we know that our redeemer lives!' (Job 19:25) With such hope, we are consoled and encouraged to stay safe as the struggle continues.
We will survive
We entered 2021 with a silent and quiet joy that the Lord had given us a New Year! Nevertheless, I draw inspiration from the Nigerian novel, Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe, in which he writes: " The year that Okwonko took 800 seed yams from Nwakibie was the worst year in living memory. Nothing happened at its proper time, it was either too early or too late. It seemed as if the world had gone mad. The first rains were late and when they came, lasted only a brief moment... The drought continued for eight market weeks and the yams were killed... The year had gone mad. When the rains finally returned, they fell as they had never fallen before. Trees were uprooted and deep gorges appeared everywhere.
"That year, the harvest was sad, like a funeral, and many farmers wept as they dug up the miserable and rotting yams. One man tied his cloth to a tree branch and hanged himself. Okwonko remembers that tragic year with a cold shiver throughout the rest of his life. It always surprised him, when he thought about it later, that he did not sink under the load of despair. He knew he was a fierce fighter, but that year had been enough to break the heart of a lion.
"Since I survived that year, I shall survive anything" he always said. Indeed, we will look back and say 'if we survived 2020 with Covid-19, we shall survive anything.'